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New! Info for High School Journalists

Change doesn't have to be
a dirty word

By Jim Killam

"Every generation needs a new revolution" - Thomas Jefferson

"A change would do you good." - Sheryl Crow

Newspapers chronicle a changing world. Change, by definition - to cause to be different -- is news. We learn to recognize change, tell the world about it. On the editorial pages, we suggest it, sometimes celebrate it, sometimes chastise public officials for being afraid of it.
So why is it so difficult to implement change within our own newsrooms?
To explore that question, take out a piece of paper and make a short list: What three changes would you implement in your newsroom if something other than money wasn't holding you back?
Now, next to each of those ideas, list as many reasons as you can think of why that needed change isn't happening. If you're brave, ask your staff to do the same exercise. Example:

Idea: We need to restructure our beat system - get rid of some old ones, create new ones.
Why it isn't happening: Any time I even mention it, the reporters put up a whine storm. They're afraid they'll get assigned to beats they hate. Basically, they're afraid of change.

When our ideas get a chilly reception from the newsroom, we fall back on the old saw: People naturally resist change.
But do they really? Most of the journalists I know would call themselves very open to change, and criticize people who resist it. So what gives? Maybe the problem lies in the way editors approach and present change to their staffs.

"People don't resist change. They resist being changed."
- Peter Senge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Look back at your frustration list. Are you trying to impose change on your staff, or are you involving them in the planning process? In their excellent book, "The Effective Editor," Foster Davis and Karen F. Dunlap wrote: "Journalists rank high on the anti-authoritarian list. The want to be inspired, convinced, encouraged, but not commanded."
That takes finesse, and more than a little psychology. The old, Hollywood image of the grizzled editor barking orders just doesn't fly anymore. People don't respond well to that management style, and I'm not sure they ever did.
So, let's look at some better ways. Here, in no particular order, are 11 suggestions for implementing change in your newsroom. (Thanks to NINA board members Lonny Cain and Richard Parmater for suggesting several of these.)

1. Positive is better than negative. Praise, highlight and point out who's already doing what you want ... and that might even be at another paper.
2. Ask staff to name the top 3 problems. Surprise! Many will align with you. If so, you now have the same goals. Then talk about solutions together. In other words, manage change so ideas come from the bottom up, not from the top down.
3. Get someone other than the supervisor to suggest change: a consultant, local readers, other editors, etc. Try a critique swap with another, similar paper, and see if the same ideas surface.
4. Set a target but gently guide your staff toward that mission, one step at a time. They'll get more excited about change when it's their idea.
5. Communicate to your staff. Budgets are tight. They will remain tight. You don't like it any more than they do. You and your staff have two choices: Bemoan the fact that you can't spend any money, and tread water; or, find creative ways to improve your paper, often without spending an extra dime. Tough times don't define us. The way we deal with tough times does.
6. Read Stephen Covey's "7 Habits of Highly Effective People." Pay particular attention to the concept of Win-Win - where all involved parties take part in the planning and then feel good about the solution and feel committed to the action plan.
7. Be prepared for lasting change to take longer than you initially thought it would.
8. Build an atmosphere that fosters ideas. For example, tell reporters that you want them always to be working on a story that they want to do - something that brings them personal satisfaction, sparks their own curiosity, gives them chance to meet interesting people outside of their regular beats and specialties. As the editor, you just need to approve the general approach and then send them on their way. It brings fresh air into the newsroom, motivates reporters and gives you good ideas (and some bad ones) to think about. This stimulates an atmosphere of openness to change for which you don't even have to form another stupid committee.
9. Don't spend all of your time in the huddle. The game's out there. As more attention turns to improving news coverage, there's less time for gossip and complaints.
10. Keep things in perspective, and pick your battles. Not every change is critical or necessary.
11. Everyone should understand the core reasons why you have chosen the new path. Reinforce that message every day. Base future decisions on those core reasons.

As an umbrella over this list, I would add that good managers embrace the idea of servant-leadership: meeting the needs of others; develop your staff's abilities; collaborate; listen; build trust; build a sense of community.
Remember, the most successful change implementers are the ones who don't care who gets the credit.

Jim Killam is adviser for the Northern Star, the daily student newspaper at Northern Illinois University. He also teaches journalism classes at NIU. Contact him at jkillam@niu.edu.

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